2005-06 Eastern Conference PreviewThis article was originally published in two parts at Suite101.com on October 12, 2005 but those links have been taken down so I have combined both parts here as one article.
2005-2006 Eastern Conference Preview, Part I
I could post the complete rosters and statistics for each team, but I suspect that most readers of this article fall into one of two categories: (1) you visit NBA.com regularly and know the name of every team's 12th man or (2) you are a casual fan who is just looking for the bottom line: who I think is going to do well and who I think should book reservations for Secaucus, New Jersey in time for the 2006 Draft Lottery. So, without further ado, here is how I see the Eastern Conference stacking up in 2005-06.
1) Miami Heat: I'll be frank at the risk of sounding wishy-washy: I have doubts about putting Miami in the number one slot—specifically Shaq's health and the combustible chemistry experiment of bringing in Jason Williams and Gary Payton at point guard. Looking at the point guard duo first, this has all the makings of a soap opera—call it the Young (Williams) and the Restless (Payton). What happens when J-Will cranks up a 30 foot three pointer while Shaq waits in vain to receive a post feed? What happens when Payton decides that it makes more sense for him to go one-on-one in the post than to give the ball to Shaq or Dwyane Wade? Will any court in Florida prosecute Shaq if he wrings either player's neck if those situations develop? As for Shaq's health, he has already announced that he intends to gain back the weight that he lost last year, saying that dropping the weight left him weak and vulnerable to injury—I'm not sure what kind of doctor signed off on the logic that gaining weight when you are already well north of 300 pounds is a good way to preserve the health of one's knees, back and feet. Of course, as the cliché goes, pointing these things out about the Heat is like saying that Cindy Crawford has a mole. She's still gorgeous and Miami is still the best looking team in the East. This voice in the back of my head keeps whispering that Miami will not make it to the NBA Finals, but it also has yet to supply the identity of the Eastern Conference team that will knock off the Heat.
2) New Jersey Nets: The Nets have a great perimeter trio of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. The sight of the three of them filling lanes on the fast break must terrify opposing teams—two great finishers flanking Kidd, who could reclaim the title of the league's best all-around point guard if he can stay healthy. Other than health, the main question is how much production the Nets will get out of their "bigs," specifically Jason Collins and Nenad Krstic. I see this team winning 50-plus games.
3) Indiana Pacers: Everyone knows the adversity that the Pacers suffered last year, albeit some of it self-inflicted. The Pacers overcame the suspensions of numerous key players—and a rash of injuries—to win 44 games and a first round playoff series. The return of Ron Artest—assuming he avoids further misconduct—should be worth several wins. The retirement of Reggie Miller hurts the team from a leadership standpoint but his statistical contributions are certainly replaceable at this point.
4) Cleveland Cavaliers: Ric Bucher once suggested during a "Put Up or Shut Up" segment on ESPN that Chris Bosh would win Rookie of the Year, leading David Aldridge to retort that there should be an investigation if that happened; Bosh did make the All-Rookie Team, but LeBron James won Rookie of the Year—and if the Cavaliers avoid injuries to James, Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and still don't make the playoffs, that would be worthy of an investigation. This is a very talented team and there is no reason that the Cavaliers should not be among the top four seeds in the East at the end of the year.
5) Detroit Pistons: In some quarters it is popular to suggest that the pros are a "player's" game and college is a "coach's" game. The reality, as Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said in reference to winning the World Series, is you can't win the Kentucky Derby riding a donkey. You have to have the horses to win in any sport—but at the very top of each sport everybody has the horses and that is when the preparation and knowledge of a great coach can make a difference. Replacing Larry Brown with Flip Saunders while keeping the core of the roster intact makes the 2006 Detroit Pistons a great test case in the importance of coaching at the NBA level. I suspect that Detroit will fall from the elite of the conference to the middle of the playoff pack.
The above five teams are the only ones that have a realistic chance of representing the East in the NBA Finals. I think that the battle for the last three playoff spots will be as chaotic in 2006 as it was in 2005. Check out Part II to find out which teams will claim the last three playoff spots in the East and which teams will appear in digitally altered photos of fishing trips with Kenny Smith.
"Play the right way" makes its Broadway debut while Milwaukee hopes to drive a Ford to the playoffs. You've heard of being a legend in your own mind—Orlando is a contender in its own mind. Atlanta and Charlotte have excellent title chances—in the NBDL. Yes, it's Part II of the Eastern Conference Preview, with bonus coverage of the Road to Secaucus.
2005-2006 Eastern Conference Preview, Part II
In Part I we looked at the Eastern Conference's contenders. Part II examines the pretenders--—those who will make cameo appearances in the postseason and those who won't even make it that far.
6) Philadelphia 76ers: Chris Webber was having a pretty good season in Sacramento before he was traded to the 76ers. I don't believe that he left all of his game on the West Coast—and it's not like he’s going to see Duncan, KG, Stoudemire and Nowitzki every night in the East. Look for him to put up decent numbers in 2005-06. Allen Iverson is still one of the top players in the league and it looks like the sky's the limit (literally and figuratively) for the high-flying, versatile Andre Iguodala.
7) Milwaukee Bucks: Milwaukee added number one overall pick Andrew Bogut, Most Improved Player Bobby Simmons and point guard T.J. Ford (who missed the 2005 season with a spinal cord injury) to a lineup that won 30 games last year. I think that those three players will be worth the 10-15 extra wins the Bucks need to qualify for the postseason.
8) New York Knicks: Considering the Knicks' recent track record this may seem to be a bit of a reach, but even last year New York won 33 games and was in mathematical contention for a playoff berth down the stretch. Larry Brown is worth 8-10 wins. Marbury's biggest problem is his tendency to dribble too much. Look for Brown to put Marbury in high pick and rolls, forcing him to either shoot open jumpers or pass if he is double-teamed. Marbury can make that shot and will give up the ball if he is trapped. Brown is not going to let Marbury just dribble out the shot clock trying to find an open shot for himself. Marbury is more athletically gifted than Chauncey Billups and if he is smart enough to heed Brown's counsel, as Billups learned to do, he can build a new reputation for himself. Brown will also teach Marbury and the rest of the defensively challenged roster to at least pay token attention to defense.
Secaucus Here We Come!
Boston, Chicago and Washington made the playoffs last year but each lost a key starting player via trade or free agency. The Celtics will miss Antoine Walker now just like they missed him the first time they got rid of him. Paul Pierce is a great scorer but not a great leader. The young and talented Al Jefferson will take over Walker's spot but he cannot replace the scoring, rebounding, passing and savvy that Walker provided. Chicago traded starting center Eddy Curry to the New York Knicks after Curry and the Bulls could not agree on how to deal with Curry’s heart condition. Chicago seemed to overachieve a bit to get to 47 wins and I think that the Bulls will drop to the 38-40 win range this season. Washington lost Larry Hughes to the Cleveland Cavaliers, a devastating blow that weakens the Wizards while strengthening a team that finished behind them in the East in 2005. The battle for the last three playoff spots will be fierce and these three teams do figure to be in that mix.
Atlanta, Charlotte, Orlando and Toronto need help. In the immortal words of Jim Mora, "Playoffs??? I just hope we win a game." The 82 game schedule of the NBA versus the 16 game NFL schedule ensures that these teams will win some games in the course of the season, but the playoffs are a distant dream. Charlotte is a second year expansion team, while Atlanta plays like one. Toronto traded away franchise player Vince Carter for one Mourning (Alonzo, who ended up in Miami), two Williams (Aaron and Eric) and two first round draft picks. Maybe Toronto will return to the playoffs if/when those draft picks pan out. I know that a lot of people think that Orlando is some type of sleeper team, but I don't see it. Grant Hill is the team's best player and I think that he will play even better this year than he did in his first year back from injury. The problem is that Steve Francis thinks that he’s the team's best player, although he is not sure if he is a shooting guard or a point guard. He is competing with Marbury to see who can dribble the most before taking an ill-advised shot; now that Larry Brown is in New York I think that Francis will "win" that battle. Dwight Howard looks like he will become a very good player, but he is hardly a franchise player at this point. Orlando will again finish in the 30-35 win range.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:40 AM